Holy Moments – Day 16 – Les Jacobins

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My daughter asked me last night why we have to sleep. (This kid would absolutely forgo it, if she could.)

I told her that I didn’t have a detailed answer for her, but that scientists tell us we need to relax our brains – to give them a rest from everything they’ve been processing all day long. If we didn’t get a break every night, our minds wouldn’t function well. They would just be overloaded with too much information that would become a tangled mess as we tried to sort it all out.  Our minds need time to throw out garbage and put important items into long-term storage.

Whether this made sense to her or not, I don’t know. But this morning, in my studies and on FaceBook, one name kept popping up: Thomas Aquinas. And once again, I was taken back to that pivotal year in my development: 1992-1993, my junior year of college when I studied abroad in Toulouse, France. I often think that if I had been forced to process everything I was exposed to in that year, in the time I was experiencing it, my brain just might have exploded. The lessons I was taught – academically, interpersonally, and spiritually – have lasted to this day, and more is being revealed to me as the decades pass. I have needed time, rest, and maturity to take it all in. If there is one year of education I haven’t thanked my parents for enough – this would be the one.

So, for the duration of this 31-day series, don’t be surprised if I’m revisiting France a few more times. I’m not trying to relive my past. The Lord just keeps bringing it back, because there were holy moments there. And I was aware of them the time, but I didn’t have words to speak about them. And He was taking me on a journey…

Now – me and Thomas Aquinas.

It was September 1992 and my fellow students from the Dickinson College study abroad program were with an art historian preparing to enter a church near the town center of Toulouse, Les Jacobins. It dates from 1350, and from the outside, it looks like this:

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The floor plan is unusual, and that’s the first thing you notice when you get inside. In 2011, there was some extensive work done on the church to secure its foundation, so I’m not sure where you enter now, but when I was there, you came in at the door above the letter ‘C’ on the floor plan pictured here.

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At the far end of the nave is the Jacobins’ famous column, admired for its architectural originality. Ten palms cascade out from its center. Here you can see the church’s narrow space and some of the green and red detail of the palms in the column.

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Jacobins_Column_1992

In this quiet hall, under the altar, lies the tomb of Saint Thomas Aquinas – one of the ‘doctors’ of the Catholic Church, an exemplary thinker and saint whom many, if not most, consider the preeminent theologian of the Catholic faith.

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I was nineteen when I entered this room in September 1992.

I was captivated by its beauty.

And intrigued by its complicated ceiling.

And it’s here that I realized I was ignorant.

Truly, ignorant.

When I arrived in France, I knew next to nothing about Catholicism or the growth of the Church in Europe.

Our art historian teacher was passionate about this building. She talked about the stones, the stained glass, the Dominican Order, the history of the attached cloister, and its enclosed garden. We would come to spend a great deal of time with this lady, and though she never professed faith of any kind, I came in time to understand that what she was describing in each church we visited was an unfolding story of a people giving glory to God.

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I visited many, many churches in Europe that year.

Notre Dame and Sacre Coeur in Paris.

Chartres Cathedral.

Midnight Mass in the Cathedral at Strasbourg.

St. Peter’s in Rome.

The Duomo in Florence.

Westminster Abbey.

Each one of these masterpiece cathedrals is worthy of a long visit and is a cherished artifact of history.

But Les Jacobins is the church that has stayed with me. I think of it more than any other.

Why?

Perhaps because it was where I realized there was so much I didn’t know. And in the silence of the rooms, which I came back to on my own throughout my time in Toulouse, I realized that not knowing was acceptable.

At a time in my life when I was anxious to figure it all out, to have the answers to life’s biggest questions – Who am I to love? Who loves me? What should I be doing for a career? Where will I go? How will I make it? What will become of me? – At this soul-searching time, my soul found respite here.

It was here that I could sit still. That I could listen to a concert. That I could just stare. At a ceiling. At the arches. And enjoy it.

By calling me back to revisit Les Jacobins time and again, God was opening His arms and saying, “Come. Rest in me.”

Day 17 – Saint Report

The big day is finally here and she stands in front of the teacher’s desk,  my bright pink scarf wrapped around her small frame. Her blond hair is styled in a way somewhat reminiscent of the third century, and topped with a small halo of white silk flowers and pearls. She holds in one hand her report, written in cursive on wide-lined paper, and in the other, a homemade gold harp – constructed from a bent piece of metal, duct tape, string and spray paint we found in the garage.  My ‘Saint Cecilia’, patroness of musicians, is beaming with pride. She will tell her audience, with a big smile,  that men sent to behead her struck her on the neck three times, but she did not die immediately, and many centuries later she was the first saint whose unearthed body was found incorrupt.

The Saint Report is a highlight of the year for every 3rd grade student at my children’s school. Each child chooses a saint to research, write a report about, and then portray in costume – before the class and parental paparazzi, of course.  At the end of their presentation, each child shares why he or she chose this particular saint, and the reasons are always interesting and sometimes priceless. My daughter loves music and plays piano, so Saint Cecilia was a logical choice.  Another child recently moved here from Puerto Rico, and left behind her best friend, Lucy.  ‘Lucy’ means light. Ironically, Saint Lucy’s eyes were gouged out (because of her faith), and for display purposes, this little saint had them right here on a clear plastic plate covered in Saran Wrap!   But I think the saint I enjoyed hearing from the most was ‘Saint Roch.’ I had never heard of him before, and truthfully, I don’t remember much from the report except the reason why he was chosen. We were told, “I thought his birthmark was cool.”  It was a mark on his chest, in the perfect shape of a cross.

It’s obvious to me that each child feels a special connection to the saint they portray. Each one is excited to ‘be’ this faithful person for a day.   And me….I’m happy to see my daughter make a connection between her own passions and those of a brave woman who has gone before her, home to the Father.

I was raised in the Protestant tradition and had never given much thought to saints until the Lord called me to the Catholic Church nearly 8 years ago.  In the 9 months of preparation and discernment required, I had a lot of questions, all of which the clergy and lay people who helped with my classes answered fully and unflinchingly.  So, saints?  Once I understood that Catholics are not to pray to saints, but to ask for their prayers just as I would ask a friend here in the flesh, I gained a whole new appreciation for these amazing people.  And a whole new appreciation for what I could learn by hearing their stories.

What occurred to me most as I considered the saints is that they themselves have no special power.  They are no different from me except that we believe they led exceptional lives – staying very, very close to God.  And how did they do it?  Not by force of will; in fact, it’s just the opposite. They did it by humbling themselves to God and His will in every way possible, in every single aspect of this earthly life. In everything they did, these people pointed others toward Christ and kept their gaze on Him. What examples to follow! These are the kinds of superheroes I’m thrilled my kids are thinking about, especially as we approach Halloween.

The class presentations end and later she asks me, “How many saints are there?” The answer – only God knows. We are all called to be saints.  God has left a hole in each of our hearts that only He can fill and we aren’t at peace until we figure that out.  “Is there a Saint with my name?” “You mean that people have heard of? I don’t think so. I haven’t found one recorded, but most saints aren’t recorded anyway.” “Maybe I’ll be the first one.”  That’s my girl.